Rappers of the Decade: Travis Scott — The Late Shift

Rappers of the Decade returns with words on the Houston rap star and a supplementary mix.
By    April 3, 2019

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Abe Beame screens his calls before he picks up the phone.

My favorite Shakespearean character has always been King Henry V, once known as Prince Hal. There’s something appealing about the idea of the marked man, destined for greatness, meandering for a period in life as he dicks around in the underworld on the margins of society with Falstaff and a bunch of goons. When I think of the arc of Jacques Berman Webster II’s decade, that’s the example that comes to mind.

I couldn’t stand Travis Scott five years ago. I found his music tantalizing but ultimately unnecessarily abrasive. Travis Scott’s Boar’s Head Tavern, his Own Private Astroworld, was the bizarre, ugly alt-R&B he once traded in. It was pretentious hipster bait, not that all pretentious hipster bait is bad, but worse than that, it was often boring. He was an artist who clearly had a great deal of potential he would squander on masturbatory indulgence, making this bleak monotonous Ketamine shit strung between bad Cudi and the early minimal Weeknd mixtapes. For who exactly? I can’t say. And then something changed.

Scott is from a suburb of Houston, but until recently, and at times even now, you could convince me he’s from anywhere. He took his moniker from a cool uncle and it’s fittingly random. He signed his first deal at 20. His early independent work is rough but shows promise. A talent for melody and a serious gift for production was apparent immediately. He was a young protege of Kanye West and it makes sense that the album he had a major hand in was West’s strangest, least commercial album to that date.

That “it” factor, the thing Travis brought to the table that made us all pay attention even when the music sucked, was an artist with an incredibly distinct and defined lo-fi vision. How many other rappers in the history of the genre cite Portishead as a major influence? Maybe this is why he didn’t like to classify himself as a rapper. At his best, Scott’s production sounds like the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse played through a damaged wind up music box, like a long lost opera by Kraftwerk was pressed on a distressed 45 and played through fucked up speakers, like a foley artist embedded a microphone in a Rube Goldberg torture device in a Terry Gilliam movie and set it to drums.

The world is full of great producers, but Scott was more than that. To this day, his melody and style has been aped, but it’s nearly impossible to mimic his sound which has changed from project to project while staying true and recognizable to his aesthetic. Even with the benefit of hindsight to see where the early work was leading, what it was all in service of, Owl Pharaoh, Days Before Rodeo and Rodeo, are not very good. They’re full of interesting ideas that feel willfully tanked by unforced errors made by an artist who doesn’t trust his own instincts, or has an instinctual aversion/fear of catharsis.

Aside from “Antidote,” a song that I hated at first, liked for three or four dozen listens after it had achieved maximum saturation, and have found maddening ever since, the casual reader of this piece hasn’t heard the great majority of these albums for good reason. They’re insufferable and slight, he never quite leans into a good beat or a good cadence once he gets one going. It’s like pomo Malkmus shit. It has the patina of greatness and accomplishment. He sounds like someone who could make a great song in his sleep but he’s content to keep edging his audience to distraction, leaving the listener wanting for more. It’s some of the most frustrating music I’ve ever heard. Fortunately, it was the sound of a young man figuring it out.

For too long Travis seemed more interested in gracing the cover of The Fader than XXL. But all that changed in 2016 with Birds in the Trap Sing Brian Mcknight. Scott emerged as the Bret Easton Ellis of the Instagram story. His pivot to accessible pop trap, which only kind of existed at the time, is The 21st century hip hop equivalent of Dylan going electric [ed. note: it wasn’t]. It’s one of the most unexpected and exciting left turns in the history of rap, where reinvention often equals selling out for the worse unless Ladies Love you.

A couple of things clicked on the album. For one, it’s a murderer’s row of collaborators. Scott had always had the ability to draw A-list talent to his projects but the guestlist here is staggering and each artist is perfectly utilized by a master arranger, a tendency that would follow through subsequent efforts. His sound also found its most perfect form, a lush and bleak sonic palette that makes you feel like it’s always 5 A.M. at an afters with drawn blinds blocking out a rising sun and you’re coming down but still wired and anything is possible.

And then there’s Scott himself. He was always a pretty objectively terrible rapper. For much of the early half of his career a completely fair knock on Travis was he was a bad writer. Whenever he would try to rap in a traditional sense with hard spit this was painfully obvious. But there’s no rapper featured in this series who sounds less like themselves in 2014 than Travis Scott does in 2019. He found the solution to his deficiencies by taking a page from the Young Thug playbook and essentially retreating from classic usage of the English language. He now uses every tool in the rapper’s tool box, some of which he’s modified and improved, utilizing them in the absence of rappity rapping as he drops world building imagery and sensation around a chorus of scattered couplets that barely count as micro verses, ad-libs, bridges and half sung phrases.

In Scott’s hands, a night of hedonistic excess is rendered as a million points of refracted light, Bukowskiesque beat poet fragments, miniature images and sensations, a variable shopping list of ingested substances that collectively sketch an impressionist watercolor landscape of an evening or entire lifestyle equal parts hollow, spiritual, grotesque and beautiful.

But it’s not just in the writing. Hell, it’s barely in the writing. He found flow. The next time you get the opportunity to ride in a car on a highway and the windchill isn’t subzero, put on your favorite Travis song, lower the window, stick out your hand, and roll your fingers at the knuckle like a wave about to crash. In theory, I shouldn’t be able to describe base, guttural trap with such a simple, visceral, pleasurable act. But when I search for words to explain what Travis is doing at his best when he’s owning the pocket , that’s the first thing that comes to mind: A light, pliable object dancing on currents of wind. His decision making, when to duck under and spit tightly on beat, when to float above with a halting melody, is just as obvious and organic while simultaneously unpredictable and miraculous. He’s like Pascal Siakam, taking an ugly interior game of sweat, elbows and position practiced by trappers like the Kodak Blacks of the world and elevating it into something balletic, pirouetting and jab stepping on beats that sound mundane and unexceptional in the hands of even his most talented peers like Quavo.

He’s pioneered by thinking outside the box. Travis Scott won a would be controversy with Nicki Minaj last year by saying nothing when she accused him of “cheating” by attaching his merch that borders on haute couture in streetwear circles to copies of his album, which beat hers for a #1 debut. It was in actuality a visionary marketing ploy that I suspect will only become more prevalent. Like cable networks understanding the value of live events in the midst of a digital revolution, Travis was one of the first to recognize the value in something tangible you can’t pirate. And no one has innovated with autotune like this since Future.

On songs like “A Man” Travis raps in different registers like Biggie on “Gimme the Loot”, but with no need to differentiate the voices as distinct characters. He merely treats the back and forth manipulated vocal tones like Rothko embedding dark boxes in frames of stark color. The ad-lib had been a rote thing since early Jeezy and Jim Jones. Scott found many new applications for it in his verses. They’re tags, fills, color commentary, a timing mechanism, counterbalances, punctuation, shouts for help from the bottom of a well.

It’s entirely possible that the most influential development in the direction of rap music this decade is the latent realization and eventual dominance of trap. In 2019 it’s our preeminent form of popular rap and I believe you can trace this trajectory back to Scott’s ascension. When I say that, I mean the genre in one form or another has been around for twenty odd years on the fringes, but it was Travis that truly unlocked its potential and demonstrated the way forward, taking it from mixtape to club and radio. Travis merely transformed trap into a big tent genre, he expanded the definition of what trap is and what it can be. Birds in the Trap sing Mcknight consecrated the unlikely union of trap’s heart of darkness and the ethereal hipster hedonist fluff of Cudi, Drake and The Weeknd’s bastardization of R&B. He turned it into pop.

Birds in the Trap was followed by Astroworld, an album that is much stranger than any modern rapper’s double platinum double LP has any right to be. In many ways it was a return to form for the old weirdo Travis, he followed his Black Swan with Noah. It’s somehow a sprawling and spare album. But it still kidnapped culture for several months in 2018 and featured a world beating single that was performed at the fucking Superbowl. And let’s discuss that song for a moment. Although “song” is a touch misleading because “Sicko Mode” is less of a pop song than a free associative modern art installation. Every song is miraculous but few remind you that once there was 5 minutes and 12 seconds of silence, and then suddenly there was “Sicko Mode”. It’s the most arbitrary pop song I’ve heard since The White Album because it isn’t a song, it’s three songlets that are barely held together. Was there a moment in music last year more thrilling than when Drake fades out one minute in and the bass drops on the first beat change? It’s the sound of music changing, and there’s only one artist I can think of who could’ve pulled it off.

Several years ago I saw Travis Scott at [redacted] where he was ostensibly opening for [redacted]. Travis came out and absolutely destroyed. The air was filled with wax smoke and I had a few absurdly priced cocktails but my main memory is Scott perched atop a giant mechanical fire-breathing bird rapping “Butterfly Effect”. Never again will a basketball arena feel more like Max Fish. Twenty or thirty minutes later, after I scraped my brains off the dome ceiling, the headliner came out. But the air had largely left the stadium. It was like watching a disorienting basketball game where they play the fourth quarter and thrilling overtime first, then with the game decided and no real stakes they play an exhibition of the first three quarters. It was less a concert than a coronation. That night I learned in some rare, unique cases, the hardest part of becoming a King is deciding to be one.

Friends, Romans, LES cokehead D-Bags, lend me your ears: Travis Scott is dead. Long live Travis Scott.

ROD: Travis Scott- The Late Shift


  1. Hell of a Night (Owl Pharaoh 2013)
  2. Through the Late Night (ft. Kid Cudi) (Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight 2016)
  3. BUTTERFLY EFFECT (Astroworld 2018)
  4. A Man (Madden NFL 18 2017)
  5. ZEZE (ft. Kodak Black & Offset) (Dying to Live 2018)
  6. Apple Pie (ft. T.I.) (Rodeo 2015)
  7. Pick up the Phone (ft. Young Thug) (Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight 2016)
  8. Motorcycle Patches (ft. Quavo) (Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho 2017)
  9. Portland (ft. Drake & Quavo) (More Life 2017)
  10. Grey (Days Before Rodeo 2014)
  11. ASTROTHUNDER (Astroworld 2018)
  12. Bandz (ft. Meek Mill) (Owl Pharaoh 2013)
  13. Goosebumps (ft. Kendrick Lamar) (Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight 2016)
  14. Impossible (Rodeo 2015)
  15. Let it Fly (ft. Lil Wayne) (The Carter V 2018)
  16. Saint (ft. Quavo) (Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho 2017)
  17. Backyard (Days Before Rodeo 2014)
  18. SICKO MODE (ft. Drake) (Astroworld 2018)
  19. Coordinate (ft. Blac Youngsta) (Birds in the Trap Sing Mcknight 2016)

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